The Small Change We Can Manage

I was having coffee with a colleague recently, and we were talking, as academics are wont to do, about the problems with academia. These problems come in different shapes and sizes, and many are no doubt going to be difficult to address. But the most frustrating problems in academia, we agreed, are the ones that persist despite a solution being apparent.

On most days, the challenge of making academia more welcoming of people from diverse backgrounds seems like a difficult one, where progress will be made in the form of baby steps. But occasionally, I’m reminded that there are elements of hostility in academia to people from underrepresented groups, often unconscious or inadvertent, that would be easy to solve. Two examples I’ve seen recently fall into this category.

First, at a talk some days ago, a researcher wanted to make a point about hybridization between species of humans, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiensThis section of their talk was prefaced with a picture that looked like this:


By using a picture of mixed race children in this context, the researcher was (I’m guessing unconsciously) suggesting that mating between species in the genus Homo is similar to interracial unions that produce mixed-race children, i.e. that people from different racial backgrounds are basically as biologically different as members of different species.  We can argue about species definitions until the cows come home, but anything that makes a non-white person in a majority-white audience think “Wait, do they really think I belong to a different species?” isn’t worth putting on a slide.

Second, the biologist Dan Graur, posted an anecdote about a cladistics meeting, that included the sentence

It took me a few minutes to understand that the letter L stood for “likelihood,” which in the cladistic thesaurus serves as curse word akin to c**t or n****r.

I’ve added the asterisks in, but the asterisks are beside the point. The point is that the experience of one party in an academic tiff (and the side that’s clearly winning, at that) is being compared to the systematic denigration over centuries of women and African-Americans. The point isn’t about prudishness, as Graur seems to think (1, 2)–if all he wanted was an example of a curse word, then “asshole” or “fucker” wouldn’t have raised too many eyebrows.

The solution here is easy: when giving a talk or writing a blogpost, don’t use people as props in an argument unless you’ve thought about it really carefully. Don’t refer to groups of people, especially marginalized groups of people, to make a joke. Try to find a different way to fill your slides, make a different joke, because I can guarantee that your insight or humour is not worth more than alienating already-marginalized members of your audience. I’ve written about this before, and sadly, I suspect I’ll be writing about it again. But seriously, in the quest to make academia more welcoming of people with a range of identities and from diverse backgrounds, this is the easiest item to check off the list.


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